Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the city of Columbus filed a lawsuit Monday against the owner of the Columbus Crew SC and Major League Soccer in an attempt to keep them from ditching town in favor of Austin, Texas.
The lawsuit filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court invokes a 1996 law enacted after Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, where the team was renamed the Ravens. The law says that no professional team that gets public assistance or uses public facilities can leave town without giving six months notice and giving locals an opportunity to buy the team.
The lawsuit says the Crew has received millions in taxpayer benefits and has given no such notice. It asks the court to enjoin the team from leaving.
“Loyal Crew fans in Columbus have invested their time and loyalty in this team, and they have allowed the Crew SC to capitalize from financial incentives paid for by their tax dollars," DeWine said in a statement. "I am left with no other choice than to file this suit to ensure our laws are followed.”
The Crew is one of the 10 original teams in the MLS, playing in soccer-specific Mapfre Stadium just north of the Ohio State Fairgrounds. But team owner Anthony Precourt has said he wants to move the team to Austin if he doesn't get a Downtown stadium. A spokesman for the team couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
State Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, has been pushing DeWine to sue. He has said the Crew qualifies as using taxpayer-supported facilities because it is paying a below-market rate to lease state land for parking, Mapfre Stadium sits on land that is tax exempt and the state provided $5 million for parking upgrades in the 2009 at the adjacent Ohio Expo Center, where lots are used by Crew SC fans.
“I am very pleased that our state’s top law enforcement officer is vigorously enforcing longstanding Ohio law,” Duffey said in a statement.
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said "the team plays in a taxpayer-supported facility, and Precourt Sports Ventures and Major League Soccer have accepted financial assistance from the state of Ohio and the City of Columbus. State law provides us with this protection.”
Precourt last week told the Austin American Statesman that he's determined to move the Crew to Austin, but only if he can find the right site for a stadium.
“Precourt Sports Ventures continues to work with the Austin community to secure an appropriate urban core site for a soccer-specific stadium that will serve as the home of Austin’s first major league professional sports franchise," Precourt said in a statement last week. "We announced our serious interest to work with Austin prior to the start of the 2017 playoffs, an announcement that embodied risk, urgency, and a genuine desire to work with Austin to find the right site."
He's had difficulty finding a location for the team in or near the center of the city, however. Plans to build on prime lakefront parkland met with local opposition, and then Austin's parks and recreation board passed a resolution asking that a second city park be removed from a list of possible stadium sites.
Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say that "we will continue to pursue productive ways to keep the Crew in Columbus."
The lawsuit says state and city officials are invoking a law that is "narrowly written, common-sense response to owners who accept taxpayer benefits from one location and then shop their teams to the highest bidders elsewhere. It applies only to owners whose teams use 'tax supported' facilities and accept 'financial assistance' from the state or a political subdivision, and it applies to in-state and out-of-state moves alike."
Reporters Andrew Erickson and Randy Ludlow contributed to this story.